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What Your Teeth Want You to Know About Dentistry

Cosmetic dentistry has helped individuals gain the beautiful teeth they've always dreamed of. Cosmetic dentistry has helped individuals gain the beautiful teeth they've always dreamed of.

Hey, what’s your favorite way to spend a few hours and a lot of money? If going to the dentist isn’t what immediately came to your mind, join the millions of us for whom visiting the dentist conjures up memories of grinding pain, spit, and wallet-breaking bills.

I hate going to the dentist, but I was amused to hear radio show host Garrison Keillor propose “Dental Airlines.” Most of us hate to fly, and we hate to go to the dentist, so why not combine the two and kill two birds with one flight?

Seriously though, dental care is often more important to your health than other forms of medical care, but it’s not really on the radar when media and politicians discuss “health care reform.”

And just so you know, dentists prefer to call their profession “oral health care.” What they mean is your mouth, jaw, teeth, and gums are your oral organs that are tended to by the dental profession.

But here’s the deal. Even though it’s like pulling teeth to get most people to brush their teeth often enough (three times per day, with the proper motion and type of brush), or to floss often enough (at least once per day, making sure to floss on both sides of each tooth all the way into your gum line), anybody who has dental problems will tell you finding a good dentist is a challenge and a necessity. But how do you find a good dentist, and how do you avoid spending more for dental care than you need to? Let me tell you about my excruciating dental experiences, and you’ll get your answers along the way…

Getting Schooled in Dentistry

When I was 13, an orthodontist came to our school and we were forced to undergo an “exam” that lasted 30 seconds per student.

A few days later, about 35% of us, myself included, were sent home with “official” letters warning our parents to book a consult with the orthodontist. What a surprised. After all, my teeth were straight, white and in good condition, but the orthodontist would have charged $2000 to imprison my mouth in painful wires and rubber bands for two years (this was in 1974, now it costs a lot more to be braced). My father, always suspicious about people who wanted our money, wrote the school a note telling them not to use school to make students a captive audience for a dental sales pitch.

When I was 19, I had my first cavity. To be more accurate, I had my first alleged cavity. The dentist never showed me the x-ray proving I had a cavity, but he did make money putting in a mercury silver filling.

During the next few years, I spent about $1900 having teeth filled or refilled, mostly with mercury silver fillings. I never questioned the dentist’s recommendations. I figured if they told me I had a cavity, I had a cavity.

Then I made the fateful decision to go to a “holistic dentist” who lectured me about why mercury fillings, fluoridated water, root canals, and other forms of standard dentistry are all “terrible for your health.”  I didn’t know it at the time, but most dental associations and dental schools defend the practices that the holistic dentist condemned, saying they’re safe and effective.

The holistic dentist conducted a one-hour exam, making alarming noises of disapproval and consternation the entire time. After the exam, he left the room and turned me over to his scintillating office manager, a very healthy and persuasive young woman with a devastatingly low-cut dress. She convinced me all my fillings had to be removed, some of my teeth had been improperly drilled and filled so they needed crowns, and (oh no!!) I was being poisoned by my mercury fillings.

“Have you had headaches, eye problems, neck aches, backaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, fuzzy thinking?” she asked. “If so, it’s because mercury is seeping out of your teeth into your brain and bloodstream. You are dying from mercury toxicity!”

She gave me a book warning about toxic dentistry, a very frightening book that ensured I scheduled a series of appointments. During the next 7 weeks I spent hours in a dental chair as the holistic dentist removed mercury fillings, put in new fillings made of space-age amalgams, and prepped three teeth he said were “shattered” due to previous dentistry and needed crowns (at $1100 each). My total bill was $5300!

Does Dental Work Carry a Warranty?

Soon after the $5300 worth of work was “completed,” however, whenever I drank something hot or cold, or ate food that required lots of chewing, one of the crowned teeth (#29) jolted me with a sharp, searing pain I’d never experienced before.

I called the dentist, expecting warranty service, but his office manager advised me to buy a “vitamin C paste” made in his office ($47.99 for a small bottle) that I could rub on the gums near the tooth. I argued that there was something wrong with the tooth under the crown. The office manager promised the dentist would call me back, but even though I called and emailed the office 11 times, I never heard from him, or anyone else at the office, ever again.

When I asked if there was any warranty for the work, I was told: “This is the practice of dentistry. Good results cannot be guaranteed.”

For two years I lived with varying degrees of pain from tooth 29, until the pain got so intense that it kept me awake for five nights in a row. In desperation, I went to the first dentist I could get an appointment with. It was a dental clinic, the low-cost kind. The waiting room was strewn with garbage and candy wrappers.

After an x-ray and a quick exam, the dentist sadly assured me that tooth 29 could not be saved. He pumped me full of anesthetics, used dental pliers to rip the rotten stump out of my jaw, sutured my gums, and told me to come back to have the sutures removed in a couple of weeks.

After you’re healed, he said, I’ll sink a titanium post into your jaw, and when your jaw has bonded with the post, we’ll put a fake tooth in that’ll last the rest of your life (all for only $3400).

As I was leaving his office, so numb that my face looked like it had melted to one side, the dental assistant casually mentioned that the pliers had “inadvertently” knocked the crown off tooth #30.

“We temporarily glued it, and we’ll put it back on permanently when you get the sutures removed,” she said.

But when I came back to get the sutures removed, nobody mentioned the knocked-off crown until I did.

“We’ll put it back on,” the assistant said, “but it’ll cost you $285.” I protested, reminding her that the crown had been knocked off by the dentist, not at my request. Indignant, I left with the temp crown still on tooth 30 and a bitter taste in my mouth.

Wandering in the Dental Wilderness

Thus began my odyssey into dental rip-off land. One dentist, whose office was dingy and dark, where the assistant’s hands were yellow and smelly from tobacco, told me I needed a “three-unit Maryland bridge” that required him to grind down a perfectly good tooth (#28) and do a new crown there and for tooth #30, so an ugly “denture-like” device containing two crowns, and a fake tooth for #29, could be installed. All for “today’s low price of only $2299 if you pay 50% up front.”

I had learned not to let my desperation get the better of me. Sure, I couldn’t chew on the right-hand side of my mouth, and I was in constant pain, but with my rip-off radar turned on, I noticed how every dentist’s office seemed to be a money scam of one kind or another. And they sure didn’t like that I was asking questions ahead of time, or that I had done research on dentistry and was an informed patient. They don’t want informed patients, they want lemmings. They wanted me to come in, shut up, and pay the fees. I gutted my way through each day, ignoring the throbbing in my jaw, refusing to make an appointment when my radar picked up yet another shady dentist.

Word of Mouth Isn’t Always Reliable

It seemed like a miracle when one of my neighbors told me about a “wonderful friend of ours who’s a perfectionistic dentist.” I booked an appointment and was pleased to find the recommended dentist seemed professional and caring. He did an exam on my mouth and proposed permanently reinstalling the crown on tooth #30, and referring me to a periodontist to start the implant procedure for the space where tooth #29 used to be.

I was surprised when he told me I had a “cracked crown” at tooth #14. This was news to me. I’d noticed only that #14 was a little hard to floss. It was one of the teeth crowned by the holistic dentist only a couple of years ago. How could it be cracked so soon? But the dentist insisted he had to remove the crown and install a new one (total cost, $1380).

At my next appointment, it took him five minutes to remove and reinstall the crown at 30, but removing the crown on #14 was another story. In most cases, crown removal only takes about half an hour, but removing the allegedly defective crown on #14 turned into a three-hour painathon while the dentist jackhammered my mouth. The dentist blamed it on the mysterious crown material used by the holistic dentist. According to the dentist who was ripping away at the crown, the crown material was harder than any substance previously seen in this universe. The dentist actually cursed under his breath and turned red in the face as his drill bits shredded.

Exit Dental Wilderness, Enter Dental Circus

After an eternity of hammering, prying and grinding, the dentist claimed to have scoured away all the old crown material. What I didn’t know at the time is that he had also removed some of my underlying tooth with it. What was supposed to happen next is the dentist takes an impression of the tooth, puts a temp crown on, and then has a permanent crown made for your tooth. In two weeks, you come back for the installation of the permanent crown.

But at the end of the three-hour removal of #14’s crown, the dentist suddenly tells me I need expensive gum surgery called “crown lengthening,” so he can’t make or place a permanent crown for two or more months until after I’ve had the gum surgery. I had not been advised beforehand that such a procedure might be necessary, and I wondered as I paid my bill that day, why did the billing clerk charge me up front for the full price of the unmade #14 crown?

My doubts grew more numerous when the #14 temporary crown fell off in two days, and tooth #30 (the one he had reinstalled a permanent crown on) hurt worse than it ever had before, almost as bad as the tooth I’d had extracted. After calling repeatedly, I finally got an appointment to have him look at 14 and 30. He was in a big hurry (tee time at the local golf course was looming) and only spent 90 seconds trying to adjust #30’s crown height, and putting the temp back on 14. Then he said there was nothing more he could do; I’d have to go to a friend of his to be evaluated for a root canal on tooth 30. A root canal means the tooth is killed and filled. In most cases, a root canalled tooth later rots out anyway and has to be extracted.

You Want Your Money Back?

As I drove home, I tallied the huge amount of money he was asking me to spend, and how he kept referring me to his friends for expensive procedures. I had a bad feeling that I was getting scammed. So I called his clerk and explained that the crown for tooth 14 wasn’t going to be made for two months or more, so I wanted the money I’d paid for it refunded to my credit card. The clerk stammered and stuttered, saying the dentist would get back to me.

After several more phone calls to the clerk, the dentist himself called to tell me I’d receive a credit card refund, but the refund never came so I utilized my credit card’s dispute service (a wonderful option that allows me to have my credit card bank credit me back money when merchants rip me off), and received an $1100 refund from my credit card bank.

In the interim, I went to two other dentists. One of them was a former forensic dental investigator. The other was a gum specialist. They both assured me I absolutely did not need gum surgery around tooth #14, and that the problem with tooth #30 was only that the previous dentist hadn’t adjusted the crown properly. Yay, I didn’t need a root canal on tooth #30!

The forensic dentist bluntly informed me that the previous dentist viewed my mouth as a cash cow, had done shoddy work, and had referred me for crown lengthening and a root canal as a way of making extra money off of me for his friends.

“Dentists are under intense pressure from dental supply companies and consultants to bill as much as possible,” he explained. “Their motto is: why do a $180 filling when you can do an $1100 crown? It’s all about the money. It has nothing to do with what’s best for your mouth.”

And get this- I received a collections letter from the incompetent dentist, threatening to sue me unless I gave him back the $1100. I sent him a vicious reply, saying I’d be more than happy to meet him in court and to also file a detailed complaint with the dental licensing board. Strange that I never heard from him again!

Your Dental Protection Strategies

In discussing my dental nightmare with friends and colleagues, I discovered that most of us have had bad experiences because of incompetent or dishonest dentists. Here are guidelines so you prevent what happened to me from happening to you:

  1. Contact the Board of Dental Licensing in the state you reside, and check out your current dentist or any dentist you intend to go to. If there are any complaints or disciplinary actions against the dentist, don’t use that dentist. Here’s a website that lists state dental boards: www.dentalwatch.org
  2. If a dentist suggests fillings, crowns, root canals, extractions, gum surgery or any other procedures, insist that the dentist show you the problem by having you look at the inside of your mouth and the x-rays. Also insist on a full explanation on why the procedure is needed, what are the alternatives, what pain and collateral damage could result, what is the likelihood of success. If the dentist doesn’t make the time to give you all the information you need, don’t use that dentist. It’s your mouth- you have a right to know exactly what’s going on. Don’t take anybody’s word for anything.
  3. Before you make an appointment for (or pay for) any procedure (even a deposit), do your homework. Research the dentist’s recommendations, and reputation, on the Internet. Call your state’s dental board and ask their opinion about the dental work you’re contemplating.
  4. Get a second opinion from another dentist, or even from two other dentists, especially if the recommended work is projected to cost more than $500. If you have dental insurance, be sure to get them to state in writing ahead of time that they will cover the procedures, and how much they will cover.
  5. Ask the dentist about his or her warranties. If the procedure goes wrong, if you still have pain after the procedure, if the materials or workmanship are faulty, what will the dentist do to make things right?
  6. f)    Find out how long the dentist has been practicing in your area. Look at their training and credentials. Ask for local references who will honestly attest to the quality of the dentist’s work and character.
  7. If the dentist pushes non-dental services such as Botox or other facial aesthetics, and/or if the dentist pushes teeth whitening, knockout gas, Invisalign or lots of non-dental procedures, beware. A dentist who is doing lots of cosmetics is probably not very good at dentistry.
  8. Trust your intuition and dial up your skepticism. Many dentists are just businesspeople- they are in it to make as much money as possible. Yes, it’s true, don’t be shocked. If you are uninsured and have to pay for dental work all by yourself, you should be especially wary. Dentists love it when there’s no insurance company looking over their shoulder. If you have any bad feeling or intuition that a dentist is not being straight up with you, go find a better dentist. Better safe than sorry.

I’m sure you’ve got the inside story on dentistry now. I’ll leave you with some final thoughts on this. First of all, take very very good care of your teeth. Sure, it’s no fun to floss and brush every day, but you’ll be glad you did.

Second, this article is not meant to condemn all dentists. Hey, if you’ve got a competent, professional, honest dentist, consider yourself very fortunate.

And if you’re a great dentist who puts his patients first, isn’t greedy, and does quality work, this article isn’t about you, and you are going to get plenty of business because Rosebud readers will come to you instead of quack dentists.

Another thing to realize is that dental technology can work miracles. If you’ve got the money, a high pain tolerance, and a great dentist, you can have an attractive smile, and get rid of tooth and gum problems, far easier than in the past.

The bottom line is when my teeth were in bad shape I lost 20 pounds because I could not eat. I got ripped off thousands of dollars by dentists, and endured torrents of pain.  I blame myself. I didn’t take care of my teeth. I trusted dentists when I should have been a lot more cautious and businesslike. But hey, smile: now you’ve read this article, and your trips to the dentist will be a lot more productive for you!

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Last modified on Wednesday, 03 November 2010 23:13

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